Lately, some great Atari-related books have been released for all of us fanatics. One of those titles is Atari : A Visual History from one of my favorite graphics artists, Darren Doyle. Although this book is not Atari ST related, it covers all there is to know about the Atari 8-bit. Knowing Darren's work I participated on the Kickstarter and boy, ever since the book arrived, I have been hooked. Darren is also responsible for the amazing digital magazines Atari Gamer and Atari ST Gamer. Recently he started a game publishing company called BitmapSoft. Read all about it in this in-depth interview.
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2) Greyfox Books
3) Real life
4) Atari arrives on the scene
5) No physical kit
6) The scene
7) Creating magazines
8) Atari : a Visual History
9) Kick starting
11) Meeting legends
12) The future
13 What about the Atari ST
14) Favorite games
16) Having a beer
17) More accomplishments
1) Who is Darren Doyle? Present yourself to the public.
I am a retro video gamer since the age of 8 back in 1979, I come from Dublin, Ireland and have been involved in a great many projects over the last few years, both Atari and others, and I’m now also an author of my very first book, the Atari: a Visual History, covering the Atari 8-bit. It's a 420 page hardback book which was successfully funded earlier on in the year on Kickstarter, but previously I also produced two digital magazines, Atari Gamer magazine and ST Gamer Magazine Issues 1 & 2 which can be bought [url=www.greyfoxbooks.com/shop/]here[/url]. I was behind a handful of other digital magazines as lead graphic designer (Homebrew Heroes, Nesbit magazine, Atari Crypt Volume One) to name but a few and now the driving force behind Greyfox Books as well as also being in partnership with a retro gaming software distributor BitmapSoft in which our goal is aiming to release many 'New-Old' titles for home platforms in physical form like back in the old days, Atari stuff included, but that’s a secret at the moment. ;)
2) Why the name 'Greyfox Books'?
The name 'Greyfox' comes from my handle in the Atari scene from the last 10 years or so, its origins are from the character Ninja that appeared in the 1997 PS1 hit Metal Gear Solid and thought he was uber cool, hence why I went with it. So it was an easy choice for me, like all the digital magazines I've produced all carry the 'A Greyfox Digital production' label on them. So it was a no-brainer to create the 'Greyfox Books' brand for those familiar with my work. So the slogan of 'Greyfox Books' is 'A Visual Publisher with you in mind' draws on the non-traditional manner in creating visually heavy publications. I don't believe in wasting page space ;-)
3) What do you do in real life?
My real job is working within a company by the name of 'Concentrix' who were commissioned to host a contract customer support division for 'British Telecom' here in Dublin, My job is a TTA (Technical Transitional Administrator) which supports up to 300-400 people at a time through training, support sessions, complaints de-escalation and knowledgebase support, I've been here 3 years now.
4) When did you first get in touch with Atari computers?
I was introduced to the Atari VCS 'Woody' and the first-ever video game I actually played was Activision’s Laser Blast. I thought I was in another world, it was surreal. My father is not one to slouch, he knew at this point the quality of Atari products and when they became available in my country of Dublin, Ireland, he purchased an Atari 400 with 8k of RAM and a 410 Tape deck. But this didn’t last for long as its superior bigger brother, the Atari 800, with its whopping 48kb of RAM, was next-gen and was actually the foundation of what I would become later on in life. Thanks to the Atari 8-bit, the might of the 16-bit era ushered in and again this was when things really started to heat up for me. Although I'm a video gamer through and through, I began doing graphics on the Atari ST, as my father was a professional photographer and videographer and he wanted the ST to be able to do quality video titling or still imagery via the RF cable into the back of a VHS video recorder. So crude now when you think about it. But what a time to have lived. I have a huge love for the Atari ST and Atari 8-bit and will always have, but I no longer possess any real hardware I once did. I have an Atari 800xl and a 520STfm, but I can't say if they even work now...
5) Is Atari your favourite computer brand? But you don't use it anymore today?
I don’t have the real hardware set up, but I’m a dab hand at catching up on all things Atari via emulation. I have that fully integrated into my PC, so it’s not too distant that I don’t boot up a classic Automation, Medway Boys or Pompey Pirates menu disk. Purely to relive those awesome menus and music as well as having fun with the games on there. I also love the D-Bug menus too… But not forgetting my roots on the Atari 8-bit, another incredible piece of kit, that has some of the best games I’ve ever played!
6) How long have you been an Atari scener?
I have been in love with Atari since 1979. And with the Atari of today, one can only feel sad that the entry Atari made back then, is nothing like that of today. But I still wear proudly any Atari inspired clothing that I have here and if anyone asks what it is? Well, they are going to have their ears burnt off them with a history lesson.
7) You have been creating (digital) magazines for quite a while now. How did that start and what have you made so far?
So this could take a while ;-) As you all know when we were kids, with no internet we had to painstakingly wait every month for our favourite computer magazine to show up on the newsstands, with their bright fresh artwork on the cover representing the content inside. Gauging from a distance what to expect, which was very exciting as an early teenager etc. So I really enjoyed a great many magazines as a child when my father would buy them and this was really the driving influence for me to actually say to myself, I see most of these other computer platforms getting fanzine magazines, why not Atari?
So I was a part of this forum known as RVG (Retro Video Gamer) and a member there who was also an Atari fan, to which we shared this common interest in, was actually contributing to the forum's review area and had written a great many Atari 8-bit reviews. So I was toying with the idea of producing something like the old school day of a magazine, except these would be in digital form. So I pulled together something of a layout for it, and it was perfect. I asked them if I could use these reviews in the magazine and any profits made from the mag would be donated towards the server costs of the forum itself.
But things did not end well with the reviewer of the games, as I had another person that helped me with historical facts that were in the magazine to which the reviewer attempted to blackmail me with 'if he is involved, I want my reviews pulled'. This would pretty much cripple the magazine at the core and ended up me having to actually pay for the reviews to remain in the magazine.
The digital magazine eventually went on to get an extremely limited physical release via another magazine (Pro © Atari) of which only 30 copies where produced. But as soon as the reviewer got wind of this, he attempted to insight legal action against Pro © Atari via a laughable copy and paste cease and desist order (the guy didn’t even change the ($) signs to (€) signs). But he was paid for his reviews at the time, so didn’t have the ownership he believed he had. Still, he thought we were making big money of his reviews (as the mag was costing €18 per print excluding shipping cost). In the end, I have my physical copy sitting proudly with my Atari stuff here, so that’s that.
I then went on to produce the wonderful Atari ST counterpart magazines ST Gamer magazine followed up by the second issue a year later, the magazine went down a storm with ST fans, as no one had considered producing an ST magazine like this in around 20 years, so I had to get this made. Some amazing contributors from the Atari scene helped and so it was released. But my love of the ST hadn’t died, Atari Crypt had a ton of content on his wonderful website and I needed to scratch that ST itch I had once more. So I approached him if he’d be interested in allowing me to window dress up his reviews in a free Atari ST magazine. I was granted permission and I got started with that. You can grab the magazine for free here.
8) As you already mentioned, recently you entered the world of physical book creation with the amazing Atari: A Visual History. How did this all start and why did you want to make it? Tell us about the history of the project.
Well, with having the history I have as an Atari fan from yesteryear, I’d had seen a book that a guy was producing on the Commodore Vic 20 and loved the concept he had taken and wanted to mimic this style. But the majority of people feel I stole the concept from Sam Dyer’s Bitmap Books Compendium series of books to which I own two. But it wasn’t his work that directly influenced me. But let’s travel back a little bit, as the Atari book wasn’t originally what I was going to produce or start my first Kickstarter with, it actually was based on coin-op arcade games with a book called 'Coin-Op: Arcade Guide' which was in production since 2012. I had more or less had this completed by 2014, but was so stricken with cold feet or the courage to actually launch a Kickstarter and was continuously refining the book, even to this day, but I can say that this will be coming to Kickstarter in 2020! And it’s going to be brilliant!
So I had created a mock-up of what the Atari Visual History book could be, based on what I had seen in that Commodore Vic 20 book Kickstarter, and loved the concept. Why I chose the Atari 8-bit was, after the bitter sour taste left in my mouth by the reviewers' carry on, I needed to return to the Atari 8-bit and write it from my own perspective as the reviewer of the Atari Gamer magazine didn’t actually live that era or experience these titles first hand back in the day, so the 'Atari: A Visual History' book really is a true recount from a real Atari fan about the games. But this concept didn’t come without a massive amount of obstacles to overcome during production and one I didn’t really realize at the time, the 'Box Art' of the games themselves. So I had to reach out to private collectors and Atari Mania to gain access to higher-res versions of this artwork. Then the daunting task of digitally remastering the artwork for the book. With certain games however, this artwork wasn’t available, so I had to use one or two C64 box arts to complement the games. But 99% of the book is Atari original artwork. With great help from a collective within the Atari scene, the book pulls itself together, and they all have their own credit pages within the book. I was so grateful to them for their contribution, including the authors of some of the actual games present within the book, who took the time to give their perspective on their own titles.
I think by the end of the production of the book, which was 11 months long, I was about to take a gamble and going all out on Kickstarter and it was now or never. I believed I had a product that Atari fans would simply adore and cherish as well as something of this nature covering the Atari 8-bit machines as I have with the 'Atari: A Visual History' book which I’m incredibly proud of. Even with the backlash received from Atari Age and other places, I had the drive to push it through and so glad I did now as I nearly cancelled the Kickstarter because of them. But I decided to push through because of all the amount of work that I, and everyone else had put into it, so they ended up having zero impact on its release.
9) What are your experiences with doing a kickstarter project?
Stress!!! stress!!! And finally more stress!! I had no idea what I was doing. I was poaching ideas from other Kickstarter projects, layout presentations and even some wording from them. I was a complete NOOB when it came to this. I knew I had the ability to produce the promotional material for the book and execute that too, but really didn’t know the time consumption of promoting the book on social media to the extent I read that "people were fed up seeing it on their Facebook groups". But it was a necessary evil as was Twitter. I had some great help from major operators in the retro gaming publishing business. The likes of Chris Wilkins from Fusion Books, who became a collaborator on the project, really helped me get over the finish line due to it looking like it may not make its Kickstarter goal. But it did and over 650 people made this project a reality and I am eternally grateful to them for their awesome support.
10) What is your best and worst memory/experience in the making of this book?
The worst has to be the front cover of the book, which looked a lot different from what you see today, as I copied a design created from another Atari Graphics book from back in 1983. I truly felt that this cover captured the Atari 8-bit era perfectly, as did a great many people that loved that cover. But Atari Age members had other ideas and went on full attack citing plagiarism, accompanied by a lot of slandering of the project from all sides, I put my hands up that I was simply making a homage to something of beauty that I felt captured the Atari 8-bit. But Atari Age’s members continued their assault on the project for some 18 pages long, even after I had stepped away, as no matter what I would have said and done, they would have still painted me in the same light. So I let the book do all the talking when it finally got released and into people’s hands!
The best has to be when the book actually arrived through my doors from the printers. I was simply in another world with glee and amazement and disbelief that after all the work, effort and time put into it, it actually was a reality and a real book. These were the proof copies from the printers, the very first two books from the press to which both my daughters now own with a personal message in both. This was something of an incredible experience: I had helped other people realise their vision with their own products and productions, this is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
11) Have you met any interesting people from the Atari world while making the book? Who?
Ohh yes - but not in person. The power of the internet strikes again here. Throughout the book, there are some fantastic interviews with proper heroes from my childhood and I’m sure from many others' too. For them to have reached out and been willing to take part in the 'Atari: A Visual History' has been amazing. But I can’t say I’ve met any of them in real life. I’m sure that if something came up, say an event, I’d be very much up for chatting with all of them. I did meet Archer MacLean back in 2009 at a retro gaming event and chatted with him on how he managed to bring Dropzone and IK+ to the Atari 8-bit and Atari ST and was fascinating to hear him praise Atari hardware so proudly over the likes of the Commodore 64 and others.
12) So you self-published the book using the Greyfox Books label. Do you have future plans for it?
With being a new name on the block you will always face diversity and some form of struggle while achieving a customer base and encouraging people to take a risk on us. The one thing from all the work I have done, both commercially and free, was that I did it mainly for the community and not for the payoff. If I was to set an hourly rate for the book, it would have never have been completed due to the amount of work. I also have some amazing plans for Greyfox Books and, as mentioned earlier, I will be bringing my actual first production 'Coin-Op: Arcade Guide' as our second book to be published next year at some stage. I am migrating it from one program to another and then I'll begin all the hype all over again. After that another secret project that I have been conceptualising for a while now will be on the list. I still need to gauge what can be done and what can’t. And I would love at some stage to be able to help other authors realise their dream project and keep everything community-friendly and not for the quick buck.
13) Since the book covers everything there is to know about Atari 8-bit gaming, I take it you’re an Atari 8-bit fanatic. But are you into Atari ST at all? Were you as big into the ST as in the 8-bit?
Yes...I started out on the Atari 8-bit, only to fall in love again with the Atari ST which was my foundations to becoming a graphic designer. I dabbled in Microdeal’s Quartet software which I thought was mind-blowing for the ST back in 1990. I loved the ST very much so, and I would love to do a Visual History on that machine, covering the demo scene, the games, the people behind some of the most prolific ST titles in a book, but logistics and demand involved would more or less determine this, it’s all well and good 50 or so of us wanting a book like this, but to fund something like this would require 100’s and after seeing how hard Marco struggled to bring his incredible demo scene series of books, to which I proudly own all three, could be a tough cookie to crack. But yes I have great scene memories of the ST...The copy parties and the software swapping scene most of all (yes, I was a pirate…there, I’ve said it!!), and finally, how welcoming everyone was. You simply don’t get that these days.
14) Are you a gamer? And if so, what is your all-time favourite retro game and/or a new game?
I have so many titles I could list here, but I reckon that anyone with any sense of what a good game is will more than likely have the same on their list. I have played thousands of games, but if it’s Atari games from the 8-bit to the ST, I think on the Atari 8-bit it would be Bruce Lee, Goonies, Conan and the Beach Head series and the Spy vs Spy games. On the Atari ST, it was the likes of IK+, Oids, Typhoon Thompson and Dungeon Master and many more. New generation, the Uncharted series, Becoming Human was phenomenal and I am playing Star Wars: Fallen Jedi at the moment which is a superb title too. So yes. Played the best of the best and the worse of the worse..lol
15) So you told us you are working with the BitmapSoft label? Can you tell us a bit about that? And what are you up to exactly?
Yes, BitmapSoft was founded by Jamie Battison and myself in late 2018. Jamie was fascinated with homebrew titles across all computer ranges and although there was a handful of people distributing software titles under their own label, like Pond or Psytronik - to name a few. These people are of course associated with premium releases and believe me they are excellent, but Jamie and I felt that we could also contribute in a way that may be slightly different from everyone else. So how would we be able to do this? Well Jamie began reaching out to many game developers from all walks of life to see if they would have any titles that they were working on or already had out on release via free downloads and, more importantly, would they consider allowing us to release a physical copy of their game? They get half of the profits for every title sold. But we also asked if they could add something different to the physical release of their games that wasn’t present in the free version to make it more appealing to collectors to own a physical copy of a game with additional content. So it went from strength to strength within months, I can’t believe that we are now also employing illustrators to produce exclusive artwork for the games, one famous artist that comes to mind who we commissioned was Simon Phipps, the artist behind all the classic Rick Dangerous games - he did both the box art and graphics that we all love in those titles. He did the cover artwork for a psychological thriller text-based adventure game called 'Unhallowed' that has had a clamshell box release and is coming to multiple formats in the foreseeable future. We have a great array of titles coming through the BitmapSoft label on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, Amstrad and Atari platforms and our catalogue is now around 9-12 titles with many more due. The majority of our up and coming titles at the moment are in talks, so there are exciting times ahead for us and our customers.
16) If you could pick any person in the industry/game world, fictional or non-fictional, or both, to have a beer with at the pub, who would it be and why?
Wow, this is such a complex question I think I’ve ever been asked in an interview…hmmm..let me see...I think if it was Atari related, It would be Nolan Bushnell and ask why he let Atari go at the time when he was only really beginning to make the future the present, and why he didn’t try to hold on to the brand rather than selling out. But then again, he had a lot of odds stacked against him. Foremostly thank him for Atari and how they impacted on my life and can’t actually ever go through life without some form of Atari intervention..lol..
17) Do you still have something you want to accomplish in life?
I have done a lot in my life, brought a lot of things to those that appreciated it and should have being doing what I am now ten or so more years ago, I still have a small few things I’d like to get done, the books and then maybe meet all those that I have been meaning to catch up with at conventions and so on..but for now, I’m still accomplishing.
18) Any last words of wisdom, or tips you have for future writers out there?
Yes..lots..but the one thing I will say to anyone if you’re a writer or not, is 'Never give up', and expect ridicule of your work or impact on you when life attempts to test you - and it will! If you have a spark of an idea, run with it as fast as you can and don’t stop for anyone. I can hold my hand on my heart and say if I can do it, so you bloody well can!. You are unique with your own ideas, so execute them as best you can and get as much feedback as you can, negative, positive, it will make you stronger. It will allow you to easily to dust off the trolls or the talentless who couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag ..lol... Be awesome to yourself and others.
Wise words, Darren. Thank you for this chat.
And for the people interested in the amazing Atari: A Visual History, you can buy it from Greyfox Books. Highly recommended!
Nope, these are not the Bitmap Brothers! This is BitmapSoft, Darren's new retrogame publishing company.
'Unhallowed' is the latest release under the BitmapSoft label, with artwork by none other than Simon Phipps.
As you can see, BitmapSoft releases gorgeous physical versions of the games. And the promotional flyer by Darren is breathtaking.
The Grey Fox ninja from the game Metal Gear Solid. This is where Darren got the inspiration for his book publishing company (and his nickname).
This is a page from the Atari Crypt magazine. This was a free digital magazine and a real treat for the community.
This is the real deal. Darren's first succesful Kickstarter has turned into a beautiful hardcover with hundreds of pages of 8-bit goodness.
With a bit of luck, this amazing book covering all there is to know about arcade games, could be Darren's next project.
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